“Rogers: The Musical” started as a joke in the Disney+ series “Hawkeye,” which presented a challenge to the Disneyland Resort’s live-entertainment team. How, in a 30-minute, heavily condensed, Broadway-style show, do you bring a little heft to a production in which fans will be clamoring for cheese? Sure, there’s Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow and the Hulk, among others, but these are superheroes who spend more time flexing jazz hands than muscle.
In the show opening today, directed by Disney’s Jordan Peterson with a book from Hunter Bell, known best for Broadway’s “[title of show],” the answer was simple: heartbreak.
The story of Steve Rogers’ transformation into Captain America is framed by longing — for better days, for acceptance and for love. It allows the production, which veers close to overt patriotism in its opening moments, to find a sense of personal grounding. When an actor playing a young Rogers is framed by an Uncle Sam military recruitment poster, he gets all wistful and rejected: “What’s a guy to do when ‘I want you’ doesn’t mean you?”
Don’t worry, the production doesn’t stay down for long. “Hawkeye” introduced fans to the over-the-top corniness of the song “Save the City,” a work written by Broadway vets Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and it pops up multiple times, each one leaning into the showtune parody that it is. When it wants to, “Rogers: The Musical” embraces its silliness.
Our superheroes in the show seem to be outfitted more like they stepped out of Times Square begging for photos than anything related to the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the comics that inspired all of this. We know that’s Hulk, for instance, because his gym-ready sweatshirt is green. That helps give “Rogers: The Musical” its charms, one of which is the way it attempts to hit multiple theatrical touchstones in “30 minutes or less,” as a cadre of USO singers and dancers who serve as narrators tell us.
Currently slated to stick around only for the summer, “Rogers: The Musical” gives Disney California Adventure a large-scale theatrical production in its Hyperion Theater, a stage that has sat dark since the resort reopened in 2021 after a pandemic-forced closure. The space previously was occupied by a take on “Frozen,” which packed significantly more special effects than “Rogers.” The latter gets by with some tricks of the light and clever use of projections. This isn’t an action-focused show, as the exploits of Captain America are told by framing the actor in comic-book-style covers that roll onto the stage. Modern Marvel rarely looks so decidedly old-school, as even the projections paint New York in the style of a brash, 1940s-era comic.
The show leans heavily into theater tropes rather than contemporary theme park trickery, which is expected. Disney, after all, isn’t being shy in saying this show isn’t meant to stick around beyond August. But it’s also welcome, as theme parks themselves are stages, places audiences can assume a role and play at lighter, sillier or more heroic versions of themselves. Done right, such entertainment leads by emphasizing aspiration, telling relatable tales of high drama that can encourage imagination — or simply show us the power of live theater.
“Rogers: The Musical” arrives at Disney California Adventure at a time when theaters, including those in Los Angeles, are struggling to return to their pre-pandemic success. Theme park shows like “Rogers” have the power to create a fan for life, introducing a potentially young Marvel fan to swing dancing and jazzy balladeering.
“We strive to offer a wide range of entertainment in our parks. For many of our guests, especially children, this may be their first time ever seeing a theatrical production of this caliber,” said Dan Fields, executive creative director at Disney Live Entertainment. “It’s our hope they have such a great experience, they walk away wanting to see more — at Disney, in their communities or elsewhere — and that they may even develop a lifelong love of theater.”
Hefty ambitions for “Rogers: The Musical” perhaps, but there’s plenty in these 30 minutes to smile at, even if the show feels heavily expository and plot-driven. That’s probably more a function of the theme park medium and its time constraints than a severe criticism, as the show feels like a “greatest hits” compendium of Captain America moments. In case, say, a romantic emotion isn’t quite clear, the USO singers will appear to quickly tell us what we should be feeling. Anyone who’s seen a handful of the Marvel films likely will pick up on the narrative, which follows Steve Rogers’ transformation into a supersoldier who manages to outlive his WWII-era roots to survive to the present day, all the while missing an alternate life with Agent Peggy Carter.
The musical features five original songs, not counting the previously heard “Save the City” and “Star Spangled Man,” which dates to the film “Captain America: The First Avenger.” The new works are credited to composer Christopher Lennertz, with lyrics by Peterson, Lennertz and Alex Karukas. None quite reaches the heights of “Save the City,” which went all out in its showtune glitz. “Rogers: The Musical” comes off as a series of puzzle pieces constructed around that signature number.
Lennertz, a composer with a lengthy résumé of film and television credits, including Marvel’s “Agent Carter,” plays it more low-key. The new works largely attempt to take “Rogers” out of parody mode, a decision that accounts for a series of tonal shifts and results in a theatrical mood that’s not quite serious yet not fully goofy. The most instantly grabbing song — beyond “Save the City” — is “What You Missed,” sung by the usually stoic Nick Fury (due to the nature of theme park productions, in which multiple performances can be staged daily with revolving casts, Disney does not release the names of its performing actors).
As we transition from WWII to the present day, with Captain America having been frozen for about 70 years, Fury gets a bedridden Captain up to speed on pop culture, from “I Love Lucy” to “Star Wars,” with a few cultural moments, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, thrown in. Consider it a showtune take on “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” a chance for the audience to smile in surface-level understanding of its assortment of references. The tune isn’t completely contemporary, as it seems to nod to Salt-N-Pepa more than anything of-the-moment, but it swiftly moves “Rogers” out of the swing era.
“Avengers” heroics are told in song and projections rather than large-scale fights, but the choreography is just the right amount of organized chaos. The move to not use full superhero costumes is also a wise one, as the Avengers don’t stand out much from New York citizenry, helping to drive home the message that live musical theater is often best when embracing the humanity onstage rather than hiding it in fancy effects.
Those who know the tale of Captain America know he gets to have his adventures and get the girl, but “Rogers: The Musical” works to make clear that the former are pointless without some personal fulfillment. Marvel films often glance at this, but the message gets lost in all their noise. “Rogers: The Musical” has a level of confidence because it knows exactly what it is — a bit of a lark, with some big band dancing and a little bit of heart. Not bad for something that could have forever existed as only a clever joke.